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Sunday, July 21, 2002


Public works projects? Dam them all to hell

The person who said that all politics is local probably wasn't thinking about Japan, where regional officials don't seem to have much purpose in life beyond trying to cadge money from Tokyo.

This political fact of life is at the heart of the current catfight in Nagano. A lot of lip service on both sides of the battle between former Gov. Yasuo Tanaka and the Nagano Prefectural Assembly has been given to "the interests of Nagano's citizens," but there are interests and then there are Interests. According to the assembly, the only way to solve the prefecture's intractable fiscal problems is to carry out more public works projects. But after studying the matter for almost two years, Tanaka concluded that two already approved dams were unnecessary and he canceled them.

When Tanaka officially made the cancellation announcement on June 25, it was barely covered by the national media. Two days later, the mayor of Nagano City, where one of the dams would have been built, made a publicity stop at the national agency in charge of dams "on behalf of the people."

The next day, the same agency received a visit from the mayor of Shimosuwa, the town where the other dam was to be built. The press, however, didn't start paying close attention until the assembly's no-confidence vote on July 5.

The assembly has since tried to downplay the dam issue as the source of its displeasure. In a paid political advertisement that appeared in Nagano editions of the national newspapers last weekend, the assembly members who voted for the motion explained their reasons but did not mention the dams at all. Instead, the ad contains doom-laden generalities. Tanaka's reforms "ignore the welfare of the citizens" because he is only concerned with "destroying the old political ways." The future for local businesses is "dark" and holds in store the "worst possible conditions."

The national media has characterized the standoff between Tanaka and the assembly as a fight over "style." Even Tanaka himself has said that what the assembly members objected to was his "personality." And while the former governor's sometimes childish antics and tendency toward demagoguery can be off-putting even for his supporters, the gist of the disagreement really is those damn dams.

Or, at least, it should be. Nagano's reliance on construction projects is notorious. Generally missing from the debate is the fact that the prefecture's 1.6 trillion yen debt can be blamed on costs related to the 1998 Winter Olympics, which Tanaka had nothing to do with. If the citizens understand why they're so deep in the red, it's not because they've been told by their leaders. The assembly doesn't want to draw attention to its own monetary malfeasance, and the local media doesn't want to remind people that they never questioned the need for all those roads and facilities in the first place.

What may be more distressing to the assembly is that even the entrenched interests that benefit from public works are no longer so entrenched. In last week's issue of Aera, a Nagano woman who owns a lumber company talked about threats she received from industry colleagues after she supported Tanaka two years ago. Since then, these same people began calling up to ask her to put in a good word for them with the governor.

The Nagano assembly has branded Tanaka a dictator, because he canceled the dams without discussing the matter with them. But the political culture in Nagano (and in most other prefectures) doesn't make room for such discussions in the first place. Traditionally, mayors bring proposals to the governor and, after some gratuitous fine-tuning, he rubber-stamps them. Tanaka has had the temerity to go to each locality and discuss these proposals with the people themselves. Local politicians feel marginalized.

This tradition of rubber-stamping public works projects is encouraged by the federal bureaucracy. The assembly warned its constituents that Tanaka has jeopardized federal funding that the prefecture desperately needs. Tokyo has earmarked a total of 24 trillion yen for local governments that need it for flood control, and it has to spend this money by 2003 or lose it. After Tanaka's dams cancellation, Chikage Ogi, the sardonic construction minister, said, in effect, "Well, fine, if he doesn't want the money, there are plenty of other prefectures that do."

The assembly is right about one thing: Tanaka is self-centered. He is not a career politician but a writer and professional bon vivant. He has nothing to lose by sticking to his guns. The fact that he has honored his campaign pledges (which included reviews of the two dams) has as much to do with his ego as it does his sense of responsibility toward his constituents.

One wishes the prime minister were as egotistic about his own reforms. Junichiro Koizumi's tendency to want to cause offense to as few people as possible is what has made him an impotent reformer. Tanaka, on the other hand, has no problem with pissing people off.

In the end, his ego may be more effective in exposing Japan's wasteful, environmentally disastrous public works policy than a soccer stadium full of ombudsmen. The international anti-dam movement has finally caught on in Japan, and Tanaka has become its local champion, a position he obviously relishes. Between now and the time he starts running for governor again, he will be allowed all the free press he can handle, and one can bet he'll take as much as he can get. Another thing about egoists is that they love attention.

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